Spikers increase Big Ten lead with tough sweep

Ben Goessling

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – With Minnesota’s seventh-ranked volleyball team tied at one game apiece with Purdue and clinging to a 27-25 lead during game three Saturday night, the Boilermakers appeared headed toward a stunning upset.

Purdue’s Joanna Lowry’s spike demanded a diving save from Minnesota’s Cassie Busse, who sent the ball soaring back toward the net for a seemingly easy Boilermakers kill and a one-point match.

But out of nowhere, the left hand of Gophers setter Lindsey Vander Well reached up and grazed the ball, redirecting it to the floor and giving Minnesota a 28-25 lead, which it held in a 30-25 win.

Vander Well’s spectacular kill provided a microcosm for Minnesota’s entire weekend, where the difference between two victories and a pair of stunning upsets was nothing more than a few inches.

The Gophers topped Illinois and Purdue in four games Friday and Saturday night, giving them a 14-0 start on the road and an 11-1 start in the Big Ten, both school records.

Minnesota coach Mike Hebert, however, wore the expression on Saturday night of a man who knew his team had escaped.

“This was a perfect opportunity for us to get upset,” Hebert said after Minnesota’s win over Purdue. “We’re getting knocked around a lot, but somehow we’re not losing.”

Minnesota (24-3, 11-1 Big Ten) dropped the first game in both matches and was thoroughly tested in each, needing two fourth-game rallies to keep both contests from entering a fifth game.

The Illini (10-11, 4-8) were without All-Big Ten middle blocker Lisa Argabright due to mononucleosis but looked like the same team that beat Minnesota at the Sports Pavilion on Oct. 12. Illinois reached a game point twice before losing 35-33 in the fourth game.

The Gophers outblocked Illinois 19-11, reversing the most disturbing trend from its loss to the Big Ten’s tallest team. Minnesota was outblocked 16.5-7 in the first match between the two teams.

Minnesota lost the first game 30-25 against Purdue but won game two 30-17 and clawed out a pair of 30-25 victories to win the match.

Vander Well narrowly missed the 10th triple-double in school history, posting 63 assists, nine digs and seven kills – including the one that effectively put the Boilermakers away.

“That was something I did in practice a lot last year,” Vander Well said. “The pass came in pretty tight, but I was just able to get a hand on it and kill it.”

The Gophers won over the weekend by the slimmest of margins, but their lead in the Big Ten is only growing fatter.

Penn State lost a pair of matches to Michigan and Michigan State over the weekend, creating a three-way logjam at 8-4 for second place in the conference.

Minnesota, on the other hand, is three games clear of its competition in the Big Ten and looks to be in prime position for its first-ever conference title.

Playing at home for the first time in nearly a month, however – including a grudge match with No. 15 Wisconsin on Sunday – has the bulk of the team’s attention.

“We’re ready to get home,” outside hitter Erin Martin said. “We do like playing on the road, and we like hearing the other fans yell nasty stuff at us.

“But we’re ready for Wisconsin at home.”

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]